Toads vs. Roads

The Bureau of Land Management is making plans for the California desert. The outcome will affect land use across the nation.


I live on the frontier, the interface between civilization and wilderness. But civilization is advancing on me.

It is in a remote part of the upper Mojave Desert that I live, in California's Inyo County. Inyo County is the home of Mt. Whitney and Death Valley—the highest and lowest points in the continental United States—and of vast stretches of desert. It is sparsely populated, with less than two persons per square mile. Yet it is close to one of the most densely populated areas in the country, the Los Angeles basin.

But civilization advances on me and the other frontier dwellers, not from Los Angeles, but from Washington, in the guise of the Bureau of Land Management. "This land is your land," sings the BLM. In fact, of the county's 6.5 million acres—an area almost the size of Maryland—a mere 1.8 percent is privately owned, with the rest belonging to local, state, and federal governments. The whole of California is 45 percent federally owned, and in Inyo County the figure is twice that—90.0 percent. As the Bureau of Land Management says beguilingly to the reader of one of its documents: "it is about your land; the Public Land…which belongs to you and all the people of the United States." So most of the land around me is owned by some 219 million absentee landlords spread across the country.

Of course, all of these owners can rest secure in the knowledge that their holdings are administered by a duly appointed manager. It has been around since 1946, when the Interior Department's General Land Office and its Grazing Service were merged into the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM is responsible for 473 million acres of federally owned land—20 percent of the land area of the United States—and for mineral use on another 369 million acres of privately and federally owned land, as well as for 1.1 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf.

"For years," says the BLM, it "performed a role as a low-key caretaker of the public domain lands left over from apportionments to the Forest Service, and National Park Service, and other land management agencies." But civilization marches on. There is an increasing population, with an expanding technology and "a change in the nature and complexity of its values." And so, says the BLM, it "was compelled to shed its former stance as a passive and low-key manager."

Congress helped out by providing "a clear statement of policy and modern legislative mandate" for administration of the public domain. In 1976 it passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, otherwise known as the BLM Organic Act. And that's how a good part of Inyo County came to fall within something called the California Desert Conservation Area, the first "Designated Management Area" being planned by the BLM under the 1976 act. Precedents will be established here.

The problems facing the BLM are writ large in Inyo County. Because of the vast extent of government land ownership, there is great concern with access to the public domain. Travel here is almost exclusively by motor vehicle, and this applies to the public domain, where motor vehicle trails, established during the 1920s or earlier, provide ready access. But the act provides authority to close such trails in wilderness areas. Equestrian trails or foot paths would be permitted, but most people haven't the time or the means to travel that way.

A major reason for the impending closure is the damage done to the countryside by a certain type of driving—what can be called sport driving, as opposed to transportation driving. Sport drivers compete against one another or, more frequently, against the terrain itself, much as a golfer competes against a course. Under some circumstances, on some types of soils, some driving can be destructive of the landscape if it is concentrated enough. Photographs of some of the overused areas have had national circulation, but the accompanying cut lines or articles never mention that such areas amount to a tiny part of the desert wilderness. And so a vast misconception is growing, on a national scale. People who have never visited the desert are mobilizing to save it.

Section 601 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 designated a 25-million-acre chunk of California—a quarter of the state's land surface—as the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA). "The use of all California Desert resources can and should be provided for in a multiple use and sustained yield management plan to conserve these resources for future generations, and to provide present and future use and enjoyment," said Congress.

The California desert is already being used, of course. By the BLM's reckoning, the CDCA provided 15.4 million recreational use days in 1978, and the area includes 100 desert communities with over a half-million residents, three major agricultural valleys, large mining operations, numerous undeveloped residential lots, 3 million acres of military bases, 2.5 million acres of national and state park lands, 11 power plants, 15,000 miles of paved roads, 3,500 miles of power lines, 12,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines, over 100 communications towers, and 12.5 million acres of otherwise unallocated public domain—"National Resource Land"—administered by the BLM.

For the BLM's half of the CDCA, Congress gave specific instructions: "The Secretary of the Interior…shall prepare and implement a comprehensive, long-range plan for the management, use, development, and protection of the public lands within the California Desert Conservation Area." (The BLM subsequently expanded the designated area by 33 percent to include 4 million acres "where National Resource Lands are intermingled with other ownerships which must be included in inventory and planning.") Congress included a date—September 30, 1980—for completion of a plan and the beginning of implementation.

So the BLM set about planning. It called together a 15-member advisory committee with representatives from government, industry, science, recreation, Native Americans, and the general public. It conducted inventory and analysis of seven resource areas: range and vegetation; recreation; geology, energy, and minerals; Native American values; soil, air, and water; wildlife; and wilderness. It held public meetings and hearings. It drafted three alternative plans for the area—"use-oriented," "balanced," or "protection"—prepared the required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for each plan, and printed it all up in a 1½-inch-thick, 11-by-14-inch book with 25 fold-out maps. Then it held hearings on the three plans, with an eye to molding a single plan and the accompanying EIS by the end of September.

A major variation among the options is the amount of land that would be recommended to Congress for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. To be considered as wilderness area, land must satisfy four criteria specified by the Wilderness Act of 1964:

• appear affected primarily by the forces of nature, with man's work basically unnoticeable;

• have outstanding opportunities for solitude, or primitive, unconfined recreation;

• amount to at least 5,000 acres, or be of sufficient size to make its preservation practical;

• may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historic value.

Using these criteria, the BLM designated 5.7 million acres, or 46 percent of BLM-administered land within the CDCA, as Wilderness Study Areas. Congress has final say-so over the Wilderness System, and while it is making up its mind—which by law may take as much as 11 years—the BLM must preserve that 5.7 million acres under wilderness study essentially as is.

Under the BLM's "protection alternative," nearly all of the study areas—5.2 million acres—would be recommended for wilderness status and completely closed to motor vehicle use. The "balanced" and "use" alternatives would set aside 1.8 and 0.6 million acres, respectively. Presently, no land in the CDCA is so designated, and for the BLM, this means that "needs for wilderness experiences [are not being] met."

Yet in Inyo County, for example, transportation driving has been practiced since early in the automobile era—without damaging the environment. The BLM identified 159 potential wilderness tracts in Inyo County and made an exhaustive evaluation of them. Only two of the 159 were found to be damaged by motor vehicles, and even here the damage was classified as slight. But for this very reason—because it has so much pristine wilderness—Inyo County is in danger of having access to that wilderness cut off by the closing of its unobtrusive automobile trails.

Is the fear that sport drivers either haven't found Inyo County or are waiting until they wear down other areas closer to Los Angeles? Such an assumption is unsound. A sport driver needs a challenge, and there is small challenge in a trail that has been traversed by two-wheel drive automobiles, with street tires, for half a century. There are also numerous areas where no vehicle can go. The challenge is too great even for a Caterpillar tractor. So it is unnecessary to close trails to protect the terrain from vehicle damage. The damage occurs in competition areas, not along trails.

Congress must have known where the battlelines would be drawn. The Organic Act admonished the BLM to pay particular attention to "outdoor recreation uses [of the desert], including the use, where appropriate, of off-road recreational vehicles"—or ORVs, as they're called. But where is such use appropriate? That the BLM has tried to determine by following the law laid down by Congress: Ye shall listen to every interest group. These interest groups, unfortunately, harbor misconceptions about the effects of sport driving, and they played a prominent role in the BLM hearings.

At one of the hearings, Dr. Wilbur W. Mayhew discussed the spade-foot toad. This remarkable creature buries itself in the mud in the bed of a drying lake and enters a state of suspended animation called estivation. It can live in this condition, without water, for several years. Once it rains, however, the toad is aroused from estivation and within four hours has made its way upward to the water on the lake.

Almost as an afterthought, Dr. Mayhew said that he wondered how the toad could recover so quickly. It must be aroused, he theorized, by thunder preceding the rain. At the time, I dismissed this last observation as a flimsy hypothesis and thought no more about it. Then the next day another scientist, Dr. Bayard Brattstrom, presented data on the impairment of hearing in desert creatures as the result of manmade sounds.

Dr. Brattstrom had analyzed sounds. He had specifically analyzed the sounds made by motorcycles and had concluded that some of these could be mistaken for thunder. He further theorized that, should motorcyclists race across a dry lake, the spade-foot toads would hear the "thunder," leave their mucous cocoons, and burrow upward through the hardened mud to await rain that would not fall. Unable to return to estivation, they would then die.

Now I have nothing against the spade-foot toad, but I cannot convince myself to be alarmed for its safety. If motorcycle sounds reverberate like thunder over a dry lake, I suppose that the toad does whatever it has always done, down through the centuries, when actual thunder unaccompanied by rain has sounded—a not uncommon occurrence.

I wonder how many of those present were aware of the sophism. It was so cleverly accomplished, by two speakers, on succeeding days, that it deceived the recording secretary. The official account reads: "The experiment was conducted several times and they [the toads] came right out." I was listening most intently at the time, and Dr. Brattstrom didn't say that. He couldn't have, for he conducted no experiments with toads; he merely theorized about applying his own sound experiments to another scientist's theorizing about spade-foot toads. But with careful phrasing of what he did say, even the secretary was fooled. The report was approved and sent to many who were not at the meeting.

In human terms, this was most unfortunate. Most of those present knew nothing of either dry lakes or spade-foot toads. They didn't even realize—and were not told—that only a very few of our myriad dry lakes harbor spade-foot toads. Some of them probably left the meeting with a crusading fervor to hire guards to drive some poor little child with a Terra Tiger away from any and all dry lakes.

It's not that the hearings were rigged. But anything said in the name of environmentalism is taken these days as objective evaluation, when much of it is in fact advocacy. What we heard about the spade-foot toad was a legal brief presented, by scientists, as scientific investigation.

Some speakers, however, gave factual and balanced reports. In discussing the bighorn sheep, for example, Mr. Lloyd Tevis concluded: "Now I'm going to tell you something I'm not supposed to say." He then described bighorn sheep wandering through a subdivision, eating from gardens along the way, and told of a bighorn sheep eating salt from his colleague's hand. Influential people wanted a preserve of several hundred square miles set aside for the bighorn sheep—an area that no human could enter. They claimed that otherwise the sheep would become extinct, because it cannot live in the presence of man! Mr. Tevis refused to conceal the truth in their behalf.

"The California desert environment is a total ecosystem that is extremely fragile, easily scarred and slowly healed," said Congress in designating the California Desert Conservation Area. This is often said and never proved. Remember that the area covers a quarter of California. It is noted for its great diversity. Just 23 miles from the hottest part of Death Valley lies the ghost town of Panamint City, with a climate about like Denver's. In places, less than two inches of rain falls each year; elsewhere, water and hydroelectric power are exported. The pupfish live in one ecosystem and the tule elk in another. Because of abrupt changes in altitude, highly diverse ecosystems often exist side-by-side.

Extremely fragile, easily scarred, and slowly healed? This is selectively true but false as a generalization. A lava flow or a granite mountain is neither fragile nor easily scarred, although, once damaged, healing may be impossible. A dune, while easily scarred, is quickly healed by the wind. The little spring flowers appear fragile but are in fact quite tough. They must be to withstand the battering of the sand-laden wind. Stepped on by a human, most of them will spring right back up. Some will even recover if stepped on by a horse. Of course, if a horse eats one, that is the end. Humans are forbidden, by state law, from gathering wild flowers. In this respect, a California horse enjoys a privilege denied a California citizen. Of course, motor vehicles can damage little plants too.

And the terrain? A motor vehicle trail may run across a desert pavement. This is an area where wind had carried away all the fine particles of sand and earth, leaving a surface of smooth stones. Such a trail displaces nothing. A trail may cross dunes or run along the bed of a sandy wash. In this case the sand is displaced, but the action of wind or water will replace it. A trail may run on solid rock or on compact soil, at the bottom of a canyon where it is hardly noticeable. Some trails pass through sand, clay, or loam in fairly level countryside. These cause some damage, especially if a watercourse forms along the trail. But the water must run somewhere and would form a watercourse nearby if there were no trail. Altogether, transportation driving, along trails, has no great impact. But, of course, the hot issue is sport driving.

Dr. Howard Wilshire of the US Geological Survey testified that a motorcycle driven in a manner that will do the least damage can completely obliterate an acre of short grass in 20 miles of travel. I once detected some extremely faint tire tracks in an area devoid of vegetation, but I was unable to track the vehicle. When, after considerable investigation, I discovered what it was that made imperceptible tracks, I bought one. It is called a Trail Breaker, but the name is utterly misleading. After going through short grass I never try to follow my own tracks in return—I can't tell where they are. The Trail Breaker is a two-wheel drive motorcycle. It weighs 180 pounds and has tire pressure of 4½ pounds per square inch (psi). An 1,800-pound horse will carry the same load and exerts an average pressure of more than 20 psi.

Here is a bias built into the law itself. It has called for extensive studies of motor vehicle damage, but no one bothers to evaluate equestrian damage. The law does not call for such a study. The underlying assumption had been that pack or saddle animals will do no damage or at least negligible damage. Thus an unbalanced report has been presented. It has been further unbalanced by dealing exclusively with the most serious cases of motor vehicle damage rather than providing an overall evaluation.

Consider Dr. Wilshire's statement about ORVs: "The procedure for climbing grades or for acceleration is with the wheels spinning." I can only conclude that the man has never witnessed normal desert driving. Someone who, after prodigious effort, is failing to reach a goal is said to be "spinning his wheels." No serious travel, by any vehicle, for any appreciable distance, is done with the wheels spinning. Spinning wheels are likely to skid sideways from a trail. Spinning wheels, if the vehicle is not moving, will dig holes from which they cannot climb, and the vehicle will be stuck.

Controlled wheel spinning has some applications in sport driving, just as it does in earth moving. And some drivers spin their wheels aimlessly, just as some hunters shoot at signs. But, contrary to Dr. Wilshire, it emphatically is not standard operating practice for all acceleration and hill climbing by everyone.

Sport driving does, if concentrated, cause ecological damage. The BLM's solution is to set aside competition areas—different amounts under each of the plans. But that's already happening anyway. Contrary to extreme environmentalists, ORV drivers would not take over the desert if only they could. In fact, what's been happening is that ORV clubs, oil companies, and private individuals are buying or leasing land on which to drive. They are free to install whatever facilities they desire and to employ contractors to shape the land to their liking. Without public intervention or subsidy, sport driving enthusiasts are taking steps that turn out to be environmentally sound.

Off-road sport driving, after all, is in its infancy. At one time golf was played on the commons, and there was ice skating for hundreds of years before the advent of the enclosed all-weather rink. Today, both golf and skating have reached new levels of technical perfection and mass popularity because they are better done on courses and in rinks.

And a sport driving course does not have to be destructive. The Trona Sidewinders motorcycle club owned a course in Inyo County. It was much used, and as many as 2,000 spectators have visited it at one time. Yet it made such a small overall impact that the BLM inventory team did not think it worthy of mention!

In 1978 the BLM interviewed several groups of people who regularly visit the wilderness. Dune buggies were disliked by 27 persons. Four-wheel-drive vehicles were opposed by 50. Motorcycles distressed 103. But the greatest number of all, 114 people, were concerned with government itself. These included bird watchers. A group not interviewed—the frontier dwellers—have only one overriding concern; it too is with government.

There is no general agreement today about what should be done with the public domain, but there is near-universal agreement that its management by the BLM is unsatisfactory. Consider the Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The BLM estimates that between 200 and 300 burros are illegally taken from the public domain in California each year. But it took seven years of BLM enforcement to produce the first conviction in September 1978.

This displeases the burro lovers who pushed to have the act passed, but the Panamint daisy lovers don't mind. They want the law repealed. Burros are selective browsers and favor Panamint daisies, which are endangered because they are usually found by burros before they can go to seed.

Multiply this sharp disagreement by several hundred, and it becomes clear why the BLM cannot administer "everyone's land" to everyone's satisfaction. One solution is to make it into someones' lands—to resume a policy of private purchase of the public domain. The land most valuable for mining would be purchased by miners. ORV clubs would purchase land desirable for their purposes. And so on down the list of multiple users of the California desert.

It is widely believed that this way of arranging for multiple use would result in the last pockets of wilderness in America being grabbed up by people who, caring little for the beauty of nature, would ruin it. But nature lovers, too, could get into the act. There is a vast wilderness left, and if they truly value it, environmental organizations, scientific groups, and the like could, often in cooperation, purchase land and maintain it as they now wish the BLM would but often can't because of conflicting public demands. And wouldn't a genuine nature enthusiast be happier guarding a part of the wilderness than raising funds to hire a lobbyist to live in a Potomac penthouse?

There is a popular assumption that one cannot put a price upon an irreplaceable resource. We have a good working precedent, however, in the field of irreplaceable works of art. These are sold, at auction, to the highest bidder. This system has protected these irreplaceable treasures down through the centuries. The person with the highest bid is obviously the person with the best possible combination of means and desire to protect the treasures.

And so we can well imagine numerous small nature museums, each protecting one or several ecosystems, with the variety possible under individualized management. This, of course, runs counter to the plans of those who envision vast empires of wilderness under rigid federal control, but the desirability or effectiveness of such control is open to question. On the other hand, a group concerned exclusively with preservation can substitute its own well-managed quality for the government's quantity.

What can be done about places in the wilderness where great crowds congregate? By definition, such places are no longer wilderness. Mt. Whitney is one such. Every holiday, only a few thousand of those who desired to climb the mountain can make the trip; the rest are turned away because the facilities are inadequate. But no one climbs Mt. Whitney to find wilderness. It is climbed because it is the highest point in 48 states. Foot races are held on the trail to the top. People who seek wilderness go elsewhere—to Inyo County's Mt. Olancha, for example, where one could spend a week on top without encountering anyone else, and where the view is much broader than from Whitney.

Yet overcrowding at famous scenic spots can be reduced if the number of visitors is taxing the environment. The way to do it is to raise the admission. Our national parks are a good example of bad policy in this regard. Only nominal user charges are made, and the crowding that prevails threatens the ecosystems of our more popular parks. There is only one Yosemite, yet the owner of a $20,000 motor home can park it there for less than it would cost to put his vehicle into dead storage. Yosemite becomes a place to sleep 'til noon, tune the engine, bake a cake and, in the evening, watch ghosts on TV—all of which can be done anywhere. Admission fees set up on a sliding scale, depending upon the space occupied by the vehicle, would reduce crowding at scenic sites yet keep them affordable for those on foot with a pack or rucksack.

The federal land Policy and Management Act of 1976 states that it is the intent of Congress to stop selling any more of the public domain. Yet selling it would solve the problem of multiple use, of determining which potential use of a piece of land is most valuable. It could place wilderness land, like any other land, in the hands of those who know and care most about its disposition. Environmentalists might not end up with as much as they'd like, but they don't under BLM management, either. Even the BLM's "protection alternative" for the California Desert Conservation Area, with 43 percent of the BLM-administered land set aside as wilderness, was declared unacceptable by the Sierra Club: off-road vehicle users, limited to 5.5 percent of the land, would not be "adequately controlled," said a Sierra Club spokeswoman; and then there's those undesirable animals—the burros.

Instead of selling the public domain, Congress has settled on multiple use via legislation, overlaid, as it inevitably will be, with legal and administrative precedents that are bound to become increasingly obsolete in a changing world. We have much to learn from the desert wilderness. The massive things here—the mountains, the alluvial fans, the dry lakes, and the dunes—are beautiful. But in an otherwise untrammeled wilderness, big government is not beautiful.

M.D. Isely is a self-employed machinist and occasional author. His published works include Interurban Special 19: The Arkansas Valley Interurban Railway. He served on a BLM advisory committee in the early '70s.